News Cycle

A look at the news, politics and journalism in today’s 24-hour media.

Anonymous Sources Speak Volumes About Your Reporting

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In the past week we have seen two stories in the media that were based on anonymous sources grab the nation’s attention. Both have problems in them that make some editors uncomfortable. One was in news, the other in sports.

Arthur Staple of Newsday, who is a great reporter and someone I had the pleasure to work with for a number of years, lead off his piece on Brett Favre and his relationship with his New York Jets teammates with this on Jan. 1:

If Brett Favre wants to play another year with the Jets, he’ll have to work a lot harder to win over his teammates than he did this season.

“There was a lot of resentment in the room about him,” a Jets player told Newsday yesterday. He requested anonymity because team owner Woody Johnson has stated publicly that Favre is welcome to return next season if he wants to. (Favre reportedly will take until the end of February to decide about returning.)

The 39-year-old quarterback is not as welcome with his teammates, according to this veteran. After the Jets traded for Favre Aug. 6, the sure Hall of Famer made no effort to ingratiate himself with the already assembled team, the veteran said. He said Favre spent most of his down time at the practice facility in an office specially designated for him near the equipment room, not with teammates in the locker room, even after the media departed.

“He never socialized with us, never went to dinner with anyone,” the player said. Asked to describe Favre in a word, he said: “Distant.”

The quotes were splashed all over ESPN the same day, running on its bottom ticker throughout the bowl games for millions to see. But were they really fair to Favre? Staple did not indicate any effort to contact the quarterback for comment, even though all but a couple paragraphs in the 550-word story was devoted to one player’s anonymous complaints after the end of a disappointing season. HOT 97, a local radio station, managed to get one player to talk on the record, and Staple even quoted those comments, was there any attempt to get someone else to speak on the record?

Over to a more serious story. The Drudge Report, which is seen by millions, ran its piece yesterday on Ann Coulter being bumped by the TODAY show. Drudge cited an anonymous “top network source” and a “TODAY insider” to paint a picture that Coulter was banned from NBC and MSNBC for life because of her political views. No where in the story was there any indication that these sources had anything to do with the cancellation. NBC is a big organization, were they the decision-makers in this incident?

When journalists use an unnamed source, it’s usually for the purpose of gaining some kind of information we couldn’t receive on the record. Anonymous sources should only be used when we cannot report on information that is reliable and newsworthy otherwise. In the Favre case, it seems as though Newsday should have been able to get someone to go on the record. This is not a delicate inside government issue that affects the public, this is football. As far as the Coulter case, it certainly newsworthy, but given the partisan history of both the pundit and the network involved, clearly there had to be two sides of the story. Even the report hinted at that with the one line that said: “Others inside the peacock network strongly deny the book’s theme is at issue.” Why wasn’t someone quoted to expand on that?

Anonymous sourcing is dangerous territory. Often reporters are being played by sources who have an ax to grind and want to use the media to push an agenda. Today, NBC announced that Coulter had been reinvited, and the controversial author noted on her web site: “Drudge gets results: TODAY show changes mind.”

Reporters and editors face these issues everyday. They must question themselves: “Can I get this on the record elsewhere? Can I verified the information? Am I and my organization being played for a pawn in someone else’s agenda?” The answers to these questions will tell you if using the anonymous source is necessary or not.


Written by newscycle

January 7, 2009 at 12:14 am

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